Highway #5 - Dempster Highway, Km. 0

Dempster Highway

Photo from Dempster Highway

The Dempster Highway

The Dempster Highway travels through mountains that have never seen a glacier... across rolling tundra where the great Porcupine Caribou Herd winters... along the trails used by native people and the Northwest Mounted Police... through the land of the Gwich'in People to the land of the Inuvialuit... until it reaches Inuvik - gateway to the Western Arctic. The Dempster is the only public highway in North America that crosses the Arctic Circle: beyond this point is a world that many have never seen.

Road to the Arctic Circle and Beyond

Seven hundred and forty-one kilometres (460 miles) from this point lies Inuvik; the end of one journey and the beginning of a new one. Most destinations are reached by air although, in winter, an ice road connects Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. Inuvik is the gateway to the Western Arctic; a land within reach, yet beyond belief. Two Yukon destinations are accessible from Inuvik. Herschel Island Territorial park is many things; an ancient meeting place for Inuvialuit travelling along the coast; an abandoned whaling station; and an excellent location to see Arctic wildlife.

Northern Yukon National Park encompasses 10,000 square kilometres in the northern corner of the Yukon. The park is dedicated to wilderness preservation and the perpetuation of aboriginal lifestyles.

The Mackenzie River is one of the great rivers of the world. Take a cruise through the delta or fly to Aklavik. Inuvik, meaning "Place of Man", is the largest community in the Western Arctic with complete services for the traveller.

Our Home, Our Native Land

The Gwich’in People speak of always having been here. In this place they found - and continue to find - the plants and animals that have provided them with food, shelter and medicine for countless generations.

The Dempster Highway bisects the land of the Gwitchen and their predecessors. The Gwitchen moved through the seasons to fish, to hunt, and to trade with other aboriginal peoples who used the area: the Han and Tutchone People to the south and the Inuvialuit to the north.

The highway has brought many new people to the tundra and mountains of the central Yukon. All of these travellers have been welcomed by the Gwitchen people.

Hunting, trapping and fishing remain central to the Gwitchen way of life and you may observe these activities during your trip along the Dempster. Hunting by others is not permitted along the highway corridor and is governed elsewhere by permit and regulation.

Changing Times

The greatest changes for the Gwich'in and for the Yukon have come in the last hundred years with the arrival of explorers, fur-traders, missionaries, prospectors, Mounties, surveyors, scientists, oil companies... and highway travellers.

Two famous northern stories took place nearby. The route of the Lost Patrol - a North-West Mounted Police patrol in 1910 that ended in tragedy - parallels portions of the highway. The "Mad Trapper" was killed in a gun battle with Mounties near where the Dempster crosses the Eagle River.

The Gwich'in traded with the Inuvialuit who live along the Arctic coast. The Inuvialuit harvested fish and marine mammals in the rich northern waters. Today, many Inuvialuit live and work in Inuvik at the north end of the highway but they still travel to their traditional fishing and whaling camps where the culture is alive and well. It is not uncommon for people to run a business in Inuvik and still hunt caribou to feed their families.

True North

Beyond these mountains lies tundra where cold, wind, and permafrost have created a specialized plant community of shrubs, grasses and sedges. They look fragile but these plants are tougher than the trees which must hide from the elements in the river valleys.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd (named for the river they annually cross) is one of the largest herds in the world. Over 150,000 animals move between the summer calving grounds along the north coastal plain of the Yukon and Alaska and their wintering grounds near - and sometimes on - the Dempster Highway. While summer visitors will not see the great herds, you will see their trails in the landscape. Watch for individual caribou from the much smaller herds that linger in the area year-round. To many, this landscape looks strange. You will be passing through "Beringia" - an area that was never glaciated. In the southern portion of the highway, glaciers scraped and scoured the mountains but beyond that point there was too little precipitation for glaciers to form. The northern Ogilvies and the Richardsons were - and are - shaped primarily by permafrost.

Permafrost and Peregrines

Permafrost, which may extend hundreds of metres into the earth, dominates every aspect of life and landform along the Dempster. Sometimes, the frozen soil and water heaves the earth upward into rounded mounds called pingos. In the northern portion of the highway - where the Dempster crosses the Mackenzie and Peel Rivers - the trees seem to stagger and lean. This is the price they pay for spreading their shallow roots on active permafrost.

Many creatures typical of wilderness - although rarely seen - are present along the Dempster. Grizzlies, wolves and wolverines are all species that cannot adjust to close proximity with humans. More tolerant of people are the Dall Sheep which can often be seen at several locations along the road.

Bird-watchers often travel the Dempster to see such birds of prey as the endangered Peregrine Falcon, the Gryfalcon, and North America's largest bird of prey, the Golden Eagle.

Grizzly and black bears live along the Dempster Highway. Visitors should take appropriate precautions when hiking or camping. Bears are a natural part of the northern landscape; a fragile environment that is easily disturbed by Man. Treat the land with the respect it deserves.

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